The Robert Lee Revue

From the 3-Chord Wonder ‘96 Tears’ to Serving Up Creative and Accomplished Jazz At It’s Finest - The Long & Winding Road of Bobby Balderrama

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 704   By: Robert E Martin

27th May, 2010     0

Many times the most precious commodities that do more than merely exist within our community, but actually fortify the strengths that make it so exceptional, are similar to gold – common enough to be taken for granted, yet without it, our yardstick for determining value becomes meaningless.

In the musical world of mid-Michigan, Robert Lee (aka Bobby Balderrama) is such an artist.  Back in the early sixties as the original guitarist for the groundbreaking Question Mark & the Mysterians, Bobby rode that heady first-wave of breakthrough artists leaving an indelible stamp on the face of Rock ‘n Roll. And while he continues to tour the world with Question Mark, his attentions can also be found in local clubs in the area, where he performs regularly with The Mysterians, demonstrating an artistic vision has consistently evolved, matured, and broadened over the decades.

A little over a decade ago Robert shifted into the realm of Blues, exploring blistering licks and compositions with The Robert Lee Blues Band; but now he is poised to conquer even newer and more dynamic terrain with his first foray into the world of Jazz.

With his newest release of original compositions, Robert displays a breathtaking poise and fluidity on his guitar that is utterly jaw dropping. Entitled For the Love Of Smooth Jazz, the 10-tracks on this newest release with The Robert Lee Revue span many genres and lush stylistic layers, yet serve as a fitting portrait for an artist that is truly coming ‘into his own’.

From the opening track entitled Santa Cruz, which features Robert pulling out polished clusters of arpeggio lead lines reminiscent of George Benson while Mysterians keyboardist Frank Rodriguez tickles the ivories with the aplomb and dexterity reminiscent of a Crusaders-style Joe Sample, through the Latin influenced Samba Nights all the way to the poignant closing track Taking It Easy, the consistency, tone, and accomplishment on this newest creation ranks with some of the highest caliber jazz ever recorded. 

And it’s a long and winding road from the 3-chord hit making that fueled 96 Tears.

With a line-up that consists of Frank Rodriguez and Robert Martinez from the original Mysterians line-up performing on the CD, Robert says that Frank has been a musical partner in writing and arranging, along with Tom Barsheff on saxophone, Rudolph Levario on percussion, Amy Lynn Balderrama (Robert’s wife) on percussion, and long time friend Jack Nash on bass guitar.  Additionally, Robert’s son Nick Balderrama does duties on rhythm guitar and singer James Bradley will be featured on most of the shows. “James sings on the 2nd track, Mi Amore, and to me is one of the best entertainers & singers in the music business”, notes Robert.

Audiences will get an opportunity to catch The Robert Lee Revue in action, debuting much of this new material, at the annual Jazz on Jefferson showcase, which will be taking place on Wednesday, July 9th at Saginaw’s historic South Jefferson Avenue beginning at 5:00 PM.

In terms of developing the conception for this project, Robert affirms the influential origins. “Back in the ‘70s, George Benson came out with Masquerade and Broadway and I couldn’t believe the style of guitar playing that he was coming forth with, plus I really couldn’t understand it. But I really loved his playing. I wanted to learn his ‘smooth’ style and intonation, so I did a lot of research and started listening to Wes Montgomery, which sounded a lot like Benson,” reflects Bobby.

“After buying both artists’ albums and practicing many of their techniques, I shifted to the style of Carlos Santana, who has always been my favorite guitarist for his total originality, plus he also played jazz with many jazz players in the ‘70s.  I wanted to write music that had the George Benson smooth style and fuse it with the Carlos Santana Latin influence.”

One unmistakable characteristic of Robert’s new release is the precision and fluidity of his guitar playing, leaving one to wonder whether he has always been this good at executing and building jazz riffs, or is it something he acquired a taste for over time?

“In the past I was never really good at playing this style of guitar,” he modestly admits, “but I wanted to learn it and believed I could if I did a lot of practicing, or what we call in the music world as ‘wood-shedding’ – meaning practicing without anybody around but my instrument and going over the same riffs until it became a natural part of me and my instrument. Along with Benson & Santana, Grant Green is another big influence for me. I could listen to his music all day and never get tired of it because his riffing is non-stop and funky with a solid jazz feel interwoven.”

As the songs and originality in the material on For the Love of Smooth Jazz cycle through, it appears that this type of music has been percolating within Robert for quite some time and bursting at the seams of the grooves for expressive release.

Has it been difficult being locked behind the three-chord wonders that made his experience with Question Mark such a remarkable success story for so many decades?

“When we had our hit song, 96 Tears, and traveled the country, we toured with another hit band at the time, which was The McCoys. We always had great respect for each other’s music and they had a big hit song with Hang On Sloopy. The guitarist in that band was Rick Derringer and he was also a big influence, as he was the best guitarist that I had seen in person. Watching him play my guitar in my hotel room I was impressed with the fact that he could play the Blues and then switch over to Jazz with a lot of jazz chords.

“I had never seen anybody play like him and working two different styles without one sounding like the other,” Robert continues, “so I knew that I had to learn what he knew and be able to do the same.  At that time all I knew was 3 chords in a song. Question Mark & the Mysterians still do shows all over the country with all the originals, and when we play our songs I try to perform them like I did back in the day; but it is very hard because of my years of playing and working on new styles, it’s hard to go back. But I know the audience wants to hear the songs like they were recorded and I respect that so I give it my best to stick to the book.”

As for his roll-out plan for the new CD, For the Love of Smooth Jazz will be sold on the internet through itunes and and CD Baby.  Robert says that he will also be promoting the CD at live shows and has a video that was just released that can be seen on

“I have a good friend who’s a DJ in Detroit and also a musician and was able to get one of our smooth jazz songs on a national talk network when they go to a break, plus they mention the band, so we are already getting exposure on about 300 stations across the country, which to me is a great start.”

“I do have a personal booking agent, Lou Hirschmann, who’s been booking The Mysterians regularly in the Tri-City club scene for a couple of years, and he’s been doing a great job for the band.”

“I’ve also been working with Kelly Milionis as part of promotion & management, and he’s been a friend wince I met and recorded with Liliana Rokita on her CD. He definitely has the knowledge and experience in the music industry.”

When asked whether it is difficult to balance the various musical endeavors he involves himself in, Robert feels that each serves a niche and a need. “The Robert Lee Band is a blues group that came out in 2000 and I have always enjoyed the Blues, but it was and still is hard to break into that scene and get gigs at Blues Festivals, so we had to learn dance music to play in the area and we did.

“I could see we were transforming into a club band, which I liked because we were staying busy and could throw out a Blues song now and then when we played the clubs, especially the song written by Alvin Lee, Bluest Blues, which is always the most requested song off our Blues CD.”

“We did a revamp of Alvin’s song and I tried to make the lead different than the original song, which I like to call a ‘singing lead guitar’ style, with long bending riffs. Nothing fast, but nice melodic riffs.”

The Mysterians will always be in the picture playing the club scene with Question Mark and doing concert shows,” he reflects. “In fact, we will be doing a show with Question Mark in late May of this year for PBS National Network for a company in Pittsburgh, PA that does a syndicated music show for PBS.  I have seen their shows when the college stations do their pledge drives and this company does provide the network with most of their musical entertainment.”

“But I will always be promoting the Smooth Jazz CD and my dream is to start performing at Jazz Festivals throughout the country.”

Robert says that is took two years to do this new CD because they’ve been staying so busy performing live in the local area. “We would spend at least one day a week working on the writing and recording for Smooth Jazz. Plus we were trying to write with a Latin influence and some Urban Style Jazz. I think music has evolved with the Internet and its become more acceptable to blend many different styles that come from combinations of different music.”

What does Robert feel was the most challenging component about putting this project together? “Trying to get a professional sound that artist’s get when they go into a high-dollar studio with all the right equipment,” responds Robert. “When Question Mark & the Mysterians recorded in Bay City, Michigan at a studio that was also a room where there was a pool table, we had to move the pool table to set the amps up for recording. It’s amazing that record was the one that went to #1 on Billboard on October 22, 1966,” he laughs.

“So I felt that if we did it back then with a local studio when the technology was primitive, we could do it today with the advanced technology that people are getting great sounds from right out of their homes. I’ve been told that this new CD sounds like it was recorded in a major studio, so I am very happy with the sound of this recording.”

Having engaged in a wide range of musical styles and making a mark in the worlds of Rock ‘n Roll, Blues, and now Jazz, does Robert feel that stylistic barriers are breaking down between the various idioms; or are Rock, Blues, and Jazz audiences purists when it comes to what they want and expect to hear?

“When it comes to Smooth Jazz, there are a lot of influences from all the genres that you mention,” reflects Robert. “I feel that Smooth Jazz has a lot more coming. When I travel around the country with Question Mark, I make it a must to listen to radio stations throughout the United States, and there are some great jazz stations out there with a lot of entertainers that played other styles of music, even in the rock world. There’s this guitarist for Jefferson Starship that has performed smooth jazz with a lot of success, so I think the idiom has a long way to go because it does keep changing. The most important thing is to keep it smooth and nice to listen to.”

What is the biggest change Robert has noticed over the years in the world of popular music? Have audiences changed much from when he started, or are people basically the same in terms of what they expect from live musical entertainment?

“There have been a lot of changes in the music world, but I believe they are indirectly connected because one style might use a riff from another. We played in Kalamazoo last year with Question Mark & the Mysterians and I noticed that the venue we performed at had a lot of young adults. I met someone my own age and he remembered 96 Tears and asked me if it felt like the Sixties with all the young people hanging around waiting for autographs. I told him that yes; it did, because the kids wanted to hear our music from the Sixties and even knew the words.

“We played in London, England and the audience blew my mind because it was so crowded that some of the audience had climbed onto pillars in the building to get a glance at us. They had our albums that we did in the sixties. So I see that audiences are basically the same, especially when they want to hear songs and music like they are supposed to be recorded.”

“In fact, there’s a young band that I listen to and it’s recorded with today’s sound, yet it reminds me of when we started The Mysterians back in the early 60s. They’re called Finding Clyde and are pursuing their dream, just like I am even today with my own goals. They have the talent and I wish them the best.”

Does Robert still get excited about performing and is music something that he sees himself doing throughout the duration of his life?

“Yes, I totally enjoy performing at the local club or playing in front of thousands of people when doing gigs with Question Mark. When I quit playing with Question Mark & the Mysterians back in the late 1960s, I went back to school because everybody in my family said that I needed to have something to fall back on, so I took electronics.

“But I told myself that I would never quit playing, even when I got old. I just want to keep learning new riffs.”


The Robert Lee Revue will be kicking off its ‘Smooth Jazz’ show on June 9th at 5:30 to 8:00 PM at the Jazz on Jefferson series. In addition to Robert Lee, ‘Good Company’ will also hold a free concert. Held in the buildings & institutions located on South Jefferson Avenue between Federal & Hoyt, the evening will offer a rich, diverse schedule and also feature a classic and antique car show, a streetscape painting competition sponsored by the Magic Bean Café, house tours, and food vendors. This is the 7th year for the program.


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